Talking, Thinking, Threshold

For a couple of years, Firefly was the only screwed-by-the-network (I believe that’s the technical term) sci-fi TV show that I cared about. I can’t say I care about it less, now – and if I could, it would certainly be imprudent to do so – but I recently added another item to that ticket: Threshold, which aired on CBS in 2005. To be clear, Threshold is a very different kind of science fiction story than Firefly. In my opinion there is no meaningful way to compare them as such. I like both kinds of science fiction, just as I like many other, different kinds just as well. And while we are speaking, let me use this opportunity to harp on my favorite theme: One of the best things about webcomics is that they span so wide an area, and so many different styles and themes are covered. You will probably know what Firefly is about – a small crew of outcasts, making their live as freelance smugglers or mercenaries, in space, in a ‘verse that contains worlds with very different societies – but you will maybe not know Threshold, so here are the main points:

  • In our world, in our time (2005), an unidentified alien object, a probe ship, goes down over the Atlantic Ocean, in the vicinity of a Navy transport ship.
  • The probe emits strong visual, aural, and radio signals; and some radiation that can deform metal
  • The ship’s crew is affected in multiple ways: Some are disfigured and die, some go violently crazy and kill themselves or others, etc.
  • This multi-faceted infection spreads over to the US, the infected humans form a conspiracy to transform all humanity
  • Following a protocol that was created for worst-case scenarios, the US government forms a secret team to plan and apply measures to contain the threat (infection)
  • There is much strain on the team, and on its relations to other agencies, because the measures they need to apply are a conspiracy as well

I guess you could call this Serious Spy Drama meets Men In Black, which would offer an instant explanation for my love for Threshold. For all their thematic differences, Firefly and Threshold have a lot in common:

  • The visual effects are from decent up to pretty good, but not extraordinary, especially if compared to feature films which can spend a lot more time and money
  • The plot is solid, the pacing pretty fast, the narrative rhythm really good
  • The world-building is very consistent and makes sense in context
  • The characters are really good, and especially the mixture is excellent
  • The most important focus of the story is on character interaction and dialog (the style is quite different, though)

I love consistency in world-building more than scientific accuracy; I don’t care if the science is correct – whatever that may even mean in the context of speculative fiction – but I care if the behavior of the scientists and the processes used make sense (given that they are dramatized versions, not realistic depictions). And thinking about Threshold as I binge-watched it lead me to the observation that I love dramatic moments that involve people talking. Which is kind of curious, looking at the genres that I read or watch, which are all mostly about action and fast pacing: Science Fiction, Espionage, Techno-Thriller, Crime (Procedurals and Thrillers), etc.  With a couple of exceptions, I do not like genres very much that rely on talking per se. But my favorite examples of the genres I love are all, to an astonishing degree, about drama expressed as people talking (or occasionally, very noticeably not talking).

  • My favorite spy novels are the books by John Le Carre, my favorite crime thriller is The Silence Of The Lambs, my favorite naval history novels are the Master & Commander series by Patrick O’ Brian.
  • What I admire the most in Breaking Bad and The Good Wife are character interaction and dialog (though I’ll readily admit that I love TV shows with smart and sexy women).
  • The visuals in both Guardians Of The Galaxy and Kingsman are certainly awesome, but the best parts of each movie are, again, character interaction and dialog.
  • And my favorite webcomics combine character interaction and dialog with great visuals and cool action (most of the examples I’ve talked about in earlier post will fall into that category)

When it comes to dialog, webcomics seem to have severe disadvantages:

  • The word count is limited
  • If the limits of word count are actually tested, the comic can become visually uninteresting (wall of text)
  • The dynamic of the speech act cannot be depicted directly
  • There is no music

But excellent comics apply a couple of tricks to achieve dynamic and create drama when depicting people who talk:

  • Dynamic camera work can be simulated by panel composition and layout
  • Even few words can amount too much if they are emphasized by visual focus on the speaker or the listener
  • The effect of words can be conveyed by depicting the listener(s), and the effort to speak them by depicting the speaker
  • Good lettering can provide clues to context, emphasis, and meaning of the words that are spoken

A very good example for these techniques is the webcomic Validation, which updates twice a week with a three-panel strip. Most of the strips are about people talking while sitting around a table or standing in a group. Many strips show only a single person – the protagonist – sitting at a keyboard or thinking. None of these activities looks very dynamic in itself, but the depiction in the comic is very dynamic:

Set in a very different world, Space Mullet, which has many astonishing visual effect for epic establishing shots or dramatic action scenes, uses exploration of the setting as framing for discussions to make them more interesting, sometimes combined with great camera movement.

And quite different methods, all of them reminiscent of TV show or movie techniques, are used in Opportunities to create dynamic dialog pages:

There are many more examples in the webcomics that I love, and I could talk about these a long time – in fact, I plan to revisit this topic and talk about more examples in the future. But for now, I will leave it at that and ask you:

  • What do you think of the importance of dialog in action-oriented stories?
  • What do you like or dislike about dialog in (web)comics?
  • What are your favorite examples?

You can answer all these questions in the comments. You may have noticed that I changed the claim beneath the photo to Updates Every Other Tuesday, in an attempt to align promise and reality. So lets hope I will see you again in two weeks.

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5 comments

  1. For me, good dialogues are of the utmost importance in an action-heavy story. Without them, either there are walls of exposition text, which tend to stop the flow of a sequence (even if there’s nothing actually happening), or you have flashbacks, and not only have they the same blocking aspect (even if sometimes it’s simply a must) but if they’re too vague, you’re missing what you’re supposed to understand anyway. Or you just have not enough information to properly grasp what’s at stake, making the story a somewhat shallow experience with, maybe, gorgeous choregraphy.

    If I don’t like being taken for an idiot by being explained at length what’s happening, I don’t like being forced to look after clues in every single frame to understand either. That kind of hunt is, again, detrimental to the flow of a story. Of course, it’s always better to have those visual clues, they’re so great to find when you finally “get it”, but they’re not sufficient by themselves. The dialogues should be there to, well, hint at the hints, at the very least, and imply that there is something to look after.

    I like my dialogues well-balanced: they’re there to add flavours to a situation, by explaining what the picture cannot say. It’s the reason why I just can’t read “The order of the stick”: it’s a pretty good story from what I heard, but it’s so boring as a comic, the text and the pictures are so redundant, that I always give up. I’m a big novel reader as well as a ravenous comics reader, walls of text don’t bother me by themselves, and I can’t help but think it would be best if it was a novel rather than a comic.

    I’m fully aware it’s hard as hell to find the perfect amount of dialogues, the same way that it’s hard to make a scene where seemingly nothing happens be the most relevant part of the story without being over-dramatic or underwhelming. As you point out, the way a dialogue sequence is showed has a HUUUUUGE influence on how we percieve it. Lucky us, there are a lot of good artists-writers making the effort to polish them to perfection.

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  2. You raise some interesting point.

    I fully agree that being forced to hunt for clues in order to understand what’s going on disturbs the story experience. Adding subtle details is important to make a story richer. If you pick them the second or third time you read or watch the story, you get a deeper understanding. In my opinion, that’s the premier reason to reread or rewatch really good stories in the first place. But the essentials of the story should be clear to everyone even if they miss some subtle details.

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  3. Dialogue is fun! Dralou’s point about exposition is one I can agree with – Flashbacks and exposition are valuable tools, but dialogue is so versatile. You can carry a ton of information AND get to know the speakers better with good dialogue.

    At the end of the day, they’re all tools in a writer’s toolbox, I think. Dialogue and action has to serve each other, and ultimately the story as well.

    Side note, every instance I can think of where I disliked ‘hunting for clues’ was because of bad framing or direction. (Or was done to deliberately deceive the audience. (and no one else))

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  4. Plop! just a lil’ text to thank you. I’m currently watching Threshold and it’s frigging good. I wouldn’t even know about its existence if not for you 🙂

    I’m currently halfway the season, and if it keeps this up, It’s going to supplant Fringe as my favorite mystery-scifi show.

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    1. You are welcome.

      Seeing readers learn about shows or comics they didn’t know is a major part of what makes writing these post worthwhile. (And I definitely hope that I’ll resume posting soon. I’m already writing some stuff, but I cannot make a promise yet.)

      IMHO, the second half really keeps it up, and the story progression is excellent. The only disappointment is that the show got now further seasons, and couldn’t get even better. And the final episode, while still very cool, suffers from the fact that the creators were informed of the cancellation when the episode was halfway done, and hat to shoehorn in an ending in lieu of the cliffhanger that would have been fitting.

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